Ken Babbs: Intrepid Traveler, Sky Pilot, Rookie Author
BR: Each chapter begins with a running stream of thoughts from a wounded Huckelbee. He’s in a haze of pain and medication and just rapping – it’s almost poetry at times. Is that how the book was structured when you first wrote the manuscript?
KB: I don’t think so – that’s something I did in this final version.
I did it that way deliberately: the italicized section is Huckelbee awake and talking to the doctor; the main section of each chapter is when he’s gone under and it’s like a movie he’s seeing in his mind.
BR: Huckelbee gets introduced to a taste of opium early on – dispensed by a doctor to treat dysentery, actually. But in the story, alcohol seems to be the mind-bender of choice.
KB: Absolutely – there were no drugs at all in our squadron or anywhere that we were … no pot smoking. Nothing.
But there was booze – oh, fucking-A, man! (laughter)
You come back from 10 days in the machine … you’re going to have a few drinks. (laughs)
BR: I’ll tell you something that was creepy to read: the scenes with Hanoi Hannah. I see her as the Vietnam equivalent of Tokyo Rose –
BR: Man, what was it like to have her voice coming over the radio in your headsets, talking about that day’s mission? I mean, that wasn’t just general propaganda: she’d be spec’ing specific squadrons and where they were headed … that had to be a hell of a feeling for you.
KB: Well, I’ll tell you: Vietnam was a psychedelic experience without drugs. And part of that experience was Hanoi Hannah – she was right there!
It was too bizarre … but everything was like that. You took it with a grain of salt and laughed at it, but still … it was like, “What the fuck’s going on here? They know what we’re doing before we do it!”
Of course there were Vietnamese everywhere: in and around the camps, working in the kitchens, everywhere … there was information going out all the time.
BR: It was eerie just to read, man.
KB: And she was a real person, too.
BR: There’s a scene late in the book – the Marine Corps birthday, I believe …
KB: That’s right; it’s always the biggest day of the year for the Marine Corps.
BR: And they’re celebrating in the officers’ club – an open-sided thatched-roof building there in the camp. When you wrote about Cochran – in his wild-ass-looking flight suit all painted up, the crazy helmet made from half a basketball, and his black-rimmed eyes – taking the stage and reeling off poetry and jokes and the band’s making the occasional punctuation here and there … that gets pretty surreal. A little bit of Acid Test there?
KB: (roars with laughter) Well … I don’t know. Oh … (laughs some more) … that’s good.
Well, a lot of that was in the original manuscript, you know.
BR: So it was written when you were still in Vietnam – long before the real Acid Tests.
KB: Oh, yeah. What’s going on there – say, in the arty thing of writing this book and art in general – is the ability to break out of the mold of conventional thought and sentence structure. Go completely wild – like in music: blow unknown notes, okay?
KB: But within the context of the song that’s being played – and then come back to the original melody after you go out there. This is something I’ve always been part of; that was the Pranksters’ theme – being able to do that.
I got a lot of that from Jack Kerouac. When On The Road came out in ’57, it just knocked everybody’s socks off – the way he wrote. He just let it go. It was like jazz, only it was writing. It was inspirational for me.
So I’ve always tried to write like that – not let it confine me.
You take these people who consider themselves to be part of the “literary world” – they have to write in a certain way and all that. I don’t give a shit about any of that. (laughter)
To me it’s the story and the telling of the story – and to blow as loud and crazy as you can. You’re writing this for the reader; I’m not writing it for myself. I’m writing it for others to read and enjoy it and dig it.
BR: That’s a great way of putting it – the jazz analogy. We know what the melody is – the main theme – but now we’re just going to go out there.
KB: Yeah, right!
BR: And we’ll find our way back when it’s time. (laughter)
KB: Yeah – we’re gonna go cra-zy for a little while! (laughter)
BR: And those scenes where Kerouac wrote about being in the jazz clubs –
KB: Oh, boy!
BR: That remains some of the best – the best -music writing –
BR: Absolutely. Nothing –
KB: That’s right!
BR: – has ever captured that feeling like that.
KB: The part where they go to hear George Shearing … great stuff.
BR: Yeah! And Dean always manages to work his way right up front, going, “Yass! Yass! Yass!”
KB: Oh, yeah – he’d stick his head right in the horn! (laughter)
BR: Oh man … thank you. I could talk about that all night. (laughter) I know what I wanted to ask you: do you remember when it changed for you in Vietnam? Did you have a point when you asked yourself, “What the hell are we doing here?”
KB: Yeah – it took about six weeks to figure out it was a complete waste of time. (laughs)
BR: So what took the rest of the world so long?
KB: Because they weren’t there doing it! (laughs)
But the thing about it is, this is all coming through me. There were many great military people over there who saw it as an important job – and they were really crushed by the fact that they couldn’t complete it and do it right, you know? Of course, that probably meant totally demolishing the whole country …
There really are good people who will stand up when you need them to. The problem is, they’re being sent to places where it’s just being wasted … it’s a terrible tragedy.
BR: Oh, I totally agree. At the same time, I wouldn’t want a sector of the public to shun Who Shot The Water Buffalo? because they think it’s simply an anti-war book … it’s not anti-military; it’s pro-humanity, in my opinion.
KB: Exactly. These are characters who happen to be in this particular situation – but it could be any war, anywhere. It didn’t have to be Vietnam; it could’ve been in Homer’s time; it could’ve been in ancient Greece. But these are guys in this situation and this is how they happen to go through it.
BR: I hear you.
KB: You know, talking about Kerouac being a big inspiration … I also remember when Catch-22 came out while I was over there. I read that and said, “Aw, shit – that’s the book I wanted to write!” (laughter) “You beat me to it!” (laughter)
But it was the same thing: a tremendous inspiration to see how you could write about war with that kind of imagination. Let’s face it – we’re dealing with fiction; we’re dealing with flights of the imagination … in the case of Catch-22, it was B-24s rather than helicopters. (laughs)
BR: Did the ending to Who Shot The Water Buffalo? change over the years?
KB: Well, the basic ending was always the same, but I kept working on it to make it richer and better – focus on what was important and take away what detracted from it.
The book deliberately starts off just kind of ordinarily moving along; but as Vietnam gets crazier, the book gets crazier. The two go together. And I wanted those last two chapters to be the peak of the book.
BR: And I can honestly tell you as a reader – I don’t give a damn about whether I was going to be writing about the book or not – you held me until the very last word.
KB: Oh, good. I’m so glad to hear you say that.
BR: And I’m not just saying it –
KB: I know, I know. That’s why I’m happy to hear it. Thank you.
BR: Well, it’s not a compliment – it’s a statement of fact. (laughter)
KB: Okay, then. (laughs)
BR: Have you been back over to Vietnam since 1963?
KB: No, I haven’t. It’d be kind of interesting to go, if you could stand the weather. (laughs) But, no – I doubt that I will. I hate to fly, for one thing.
BR: Wait! You?
KB: Yeah, well if I was the pilot, it’d be different. (laughter) But there’s the whole airport thing and then the seats are so uncomfortable … it’s bad. All that’s good about it is the fact that you get somewhere quickly.
BR: It’s true. And it’s worse if you’re tall –
KB: Oh, yeah! And the guy in front of you leans his seat back …
BR: And I’m looking down right in his face! (laughter)
KB: I know! Every time they do that, I go “AAAAAAAAAHHHH!” real loudly and everybody jumps. (laughter)
“Oh, God – my knees! He broke my knees!” (laughter)
BR: Does it help?
KB: Naw. (laughs) Anybody who cared wouldn’t lean their seat back to begin with. The people who give a shit won’t do it. It’s too rude. (laughs)
BR: So, I’m assuming you’ll be going out on the road in the coming months to talk about the book.
KB: Well, so far we’re just putting together the West Coast tour. We’ll see how that goes and then hopefully I’ll head out to Colorado where I have a lot of good connections; the mid-west – including my old alma mater; down to Lexington, KY where I have some good writing buddies; and then end up on the East Coast with a grand finale in New York City.
BR: Cool- sounds great. I guess we’re near the end here, Ken … is there anything you want to say to the folks back at home?
KB: “The folks back at home.” (laughs, then takes a deep breath)
Be watching up in the sky
Any time of day or night
For the flying of the pilot
Soaring out of sight …
BR: All right! The theme song!
KB: Yeah! (laughter)
BR: Ken, thank you. Thank you for taking the time to speak with us; thank you for writing this book; and, most of all, thank you for forging ahead, turning on some lights, and leaving the doors open behind you over the years.
KB: You’re welcome, Brian. And thank you – this has been fun.